When I saw that iconic scene from Scanners for the first time, it was so fucking epic.
I think you know the scene I am talking about. It’s at the beginning of the movie, where a defense company is showing off its latest product: a human with telepathic abilities, which they call “scanners.” The demonstration is derailed when another, more powerful scanner shows up — the film’s ultimate antagonist — who bests the other scanner by telepathically blowing his head wide open. After 30 or so seconds of tension-building, signified by the literally tense expressions on both scanners’ faces — that bald bespectacled cranium shatters into shreds of deep red globule and boney shrapnel in front of a captivated, terrified, Canadian audience.
Epic, right? I must have been in high school.
Admittedly I had to look up the context of the scene. I have watched Scanners in full only once and retained very little. Much of my emotional resonance was given to that scene, which I have watched dozens of times over 20 or so years. It always just sort of appeared, never when I expected it but never turned away. How could I? It was simply too epic.
If the dancing baby in Ally McBeal was the first GIF in historical terms, the exploding head from Scanners was the first GIF in personal terms, and my only GIF for much of my early internet use. I probably missed out on many more GIFs in that period because I was never a complete devotee of the internet. The internet was a tool first and foremost for filling gaps in my knowledge; “building a community” was a lesser priority. Both uses were frowned upon by older folks at the time so it’s not like it matters, does it?
Sometimes my knowledge gap-filling took me to a message board or a chatroom — and there I’d find it: the exploding head from Scanners exploding on an endless loop. It was put there for no other reason I could determine than to delight or offend all who laid eyes on it. It made no difference to me what feelings I was expected to have or that I forgot the reason that brought me to the place where I saw it to begin with because of how beyond-fucking-thunderdome epic it was.
I couldn’t possibly tell you what seeing something epic, let alone something so unquantifiably radiant in epicness as that, felt like in real time. Even a linguistically adept teen — which I was in the crudest way — would be beside him or herself trying to put it into words. It takes years of accumulated maturity just to come up with “nausea, but better somehow.” Like really, really fun nausea; excited nausea. Ebullient nausea. I’ve often heard about people who are so happy they vomit; I can’t imagine ever being that happy about anything. In this case it was more of a comfort. Yes, I can say that I was comforted by the sight of the exploding head from Scanners every time I saw it. It took all of my rotten and abject teen feelings bothering me at a given moment and swept them in some far-off corner of mental space obscured even from me. Resilience and hope came in their place. And why not? Something like the exploding head from Scanners could not logically inspire anything less. From that head came not just brains and ligaments, but possibilities. Those possibilities were vague but also within reach like a soda in the fridge. Once I got hold of them I was confident I could figure out what they were.
I never did go and get them; it was just nice knowing that they were there. I felt validated in my existence, whereas elsewhere I was more contingent and incidental.
I’m part of that generation that made “whatever” its credo, but only because “whatever” was hitting us from without at all angles, usually from elders. They need not have said the actual word; they could just impute it in our general direction in stony silence or shrill laughter. That was their power. It was great and it was woeful. No such power was found in the exploding head from Scanners. It was so far from its understanding. Whatever is the reflection of epic, just as evil is the reflection of not evil and bogus is the reflection of excellent.
There’s something inherently tragic about being able to articulate epic. For it means that the one articulating it is about as far from epic as he or she can be, and has not seen anything that could constitute epic or which could be deduced as epic after the fact in a very long time. Truly nothing could ever measure up to the epicness of the exploding head from Scanners. Each new encounter that could in some way give off a residue of epic seemed degraded in comparison. And each new epic encounter was more degrading than the last. Even Faith No More’s hit song from 1990, which has the word epic in the title, felt like a false hope — a broken promise. As for the exploding head from Scanners itself, I just stopped seeing it. The world where it thrived had mutated into a world where I can look up the scene whenever I wish. But why would I do that? Why poison that moment with my thirst: my thirst to see some random man’s — I could also look up the actor’s name but I’m not going to on principle — some random man’s head explode in a torrent of cerebral gelatin? The answer is whatever.
Epic can only be appreciated to its fullest in the leafy twilight of whatever. It is no surprise that there are many more things that fall under whatever than under epic. Sleeping is whatever. Shopping for slacks is whatever. Having an income is whatever. Listening to Angel Olsen is whatever. Watching Scanners is whatever. Riding a Citi Bike is whatever. Holding hands in public is whatever. Never having to say you’re sorry is whatever. Whatever is a soggy hospital waiting room-colored cloud that hangs over you at all times. Sometimes you think it’s touching you but when you turn around it’s always at a suspiciously safe distance. Not that being whatever is the worst thing to be in the world. Being mired in bullshit is a few notches beneath whatever. Bullshit is whatever that has caught fire. I’m not sure even God would assist me if I fell into some deep and murky bullshit.
I’ve made a personal pledge not to spread my whatever around; to be a miser of my whatever. I will never share it, nor will I foist it on others, particularly those for whom epic is still very real, if imprecise. I don’t know what epic is today. I would hope its basic elements are unchanged since I first encountered epic, but maybe those elements are omnivorous, attaching themselves to anything and finding vibrancy through the fated gaze of the young. That could be epic.
I’m full of coulds now. It could be epic if someone younger encountered the nearest equivalent to the exploding head from Scanners and, needing to arrive at the best possible language to assess his or her experience, came to me for guidance. But that’s dangerous as well. I could be told what was seen in the greatest detail and still the impulse to naysay what is epic or to reorient his or her thinking to what was epic will kick in. What else can that beleaguered, humiliated brat say in return but “Whatever”? Writing this, I hope, allays that nightmare scenario.
As you might have guessed, allaying nightmare scenarios is as whatever as it gets.